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New leadership at Pentagon could impact plans for Afghanistan withdrawal

November 12, 2020
In The News

Many questions remain in the wake of sweeping changes to leadership at the Pentagon this week, but critics fear the staff shakeup could signal an intent to take drastic steps in President Donald Trump’s final 70 days in office, including fulfilling his promise to complete a rapid and risky withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper Monday, replacing him with Christopher Miller, who had been director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Three other senior civilian officials left the Department of Defense soon afterward, and all were replaced by loyal Trump supporters.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has been projected as the winner of last week’s presidential election. President Trump has not conceded and is pursuing legal challenges in several states, but the sudden replacement of a Cabinet official and top aides is highly unusual with Biden positioned to take power on Jan. 20.

“In part, what is going on here, I think, is the enforcement of loyalty,” said Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “That is, a decision made by Donald Trump that he doesn’t like the way the departments have been responding to him.”

The new appointees include Anthony Tata, whose nomination for a top Pentagon post was withdrawn over the summer due to bipartisan opposition, and retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, who Trump previously sought to nominate as ambassador to Germany.

“It’s ‘The Twilight Zone,’” one Pentagon official told The Washington Post. “No one knows what’s going to happen next.”

Sources familiar with the moves told Axios Trump wanted to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East and try to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan by the end of the year. Macgregor, a former Fox News commentator, has been a vocal advocate for pulling American forces out of the region.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has drawn down U.S. forces in Afghanistan to about 4,500, the lowest level in years. Esper and other military leaders had resisted the president’s push to remove the remaining troops without further progress in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Although Esper clashed with national security adviser Robert O’Brien over the speed of withdrawals from the Middle East, he has also broken with President Trump on other matters that could have spurred his removal. In June, he rejected Trump’s suggestion that active-duty troops could be deployed against protesters in the U.S. under the Insurrection Act.

“The replacement of Esper is the outcome of a monthslong struggle over whether or not it’s appropriate for the president to invoke the Insurrection Act,” said Austin Wright, a faculty affiliate of the Pearson Institute at the University of Chicago.

According to Adams, the ramifications of forcing out experienced senior DOD staff and replacing them with loyalists who are, in some cases, unqualified for their new positions range “from laughable to dangerous.” They might just be disruptive and ineffective, or they could help President Trump take dramatic military action at home or abroad.

“If he decides he wants to do any of those things, he now has in place the architecture he can use to do that,” he said.

The Trump administration entered peace negotiations with the Taliban in 2019, and a conditional agreement was struck earlier this year for the U.S. to pull out all troops by May 2021 if the Taliban fulfills counterterrorism commitments. Implementation of the pact has been rocky, with frequent Taliban attacks on Afghan forces, but the U.S. was on track to get down to about 2,500 forces by early next year.

That might not be enough for President Trump, who has long complained about U.S. soldiers acting as a police force in Afghanistan. Ending American involvement in conflicts there and elsewhere in the Middle East had been a significant element of his reelection pitch.

“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” Trump tweeted last month.

In a letter Wednesday, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., urged the president to keep that promise and bring troops home by the holidays. He acknowledged Afghanistan and Iraq are still unstable countries, but he asserted that the effort to reshape them is not worth the cost in lives or dollars.

“I commend your efforts so far to bring our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq to an end, including your bold decision to open negotiations with the Taliban and your ambitious plan to remove thousands of United States service members from these two countries,” Biggs wrote.

It might be logistically feasible, albeit difficult, to get thousands of troops out of the Middle East in a matter of weeks, but experts say rushing the process could make conditions on the ground much worse.

“It’s disruptive as hell because they aren’t organized to pull those forces out in six weeks,” Adams said.

The small contingent of forces still operating in Afghanistan plays a critical role in supporting the Afghan government and working with local defense and security officers. Backing out without a clear plan for the future would undermine the trust they have built, and those relationships might be difficult to rebuild.

“If there is a hasty withdrawal, what does it signal about the U.S. interest in Afghanistan?” Wright said.

According to Will Walldorf, an expert on U.S. foreign policy at Wake Forest University, the consequences of a rapid withdrawal might not be immediate, but it would be highly destabilizing. That is why advisers have backed Trump down from pulling out completely in the past, but the political dynamics have changed after last week’s election, especially with Trump reportedly weighing another run for the presidency in 2024.

“A withdrawal now during the lame-duck period will almost certainly be a mess that Joe Biden will be left to clean up, since a Taliban takeover may not come immediately,” Walldorf said. “That fact might only embolden Trump to move.”

Those opposed to the upheaval at the Pentagon have also cautioned that it could complicate the transition to an incoming Biden administration. Biden announced his Department of Defense landing team earlier this week and is awaiting a determination by the General Services Administration to begin working with current officials on the transition.

“It is hard to overstate just how dangerous high-level turnover at the Department of Defense is during a period of presidential transition,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., in a statement.

Former Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster also expressed concern in a Fox News Radio interview Wednesday, arguing a smooth and gracious handoff to Biden would be in the best interest of the country, even if Trump and his aides disagree with his policies.

“What you want to do is, you want your successor to succeed, right?” McMaster said.

In a New York Times op-ed Wednesday, former Obama administration officials Robert Malley and Philip Gordon warned President Trump could still “wreak havoc” around the world in the next two months. They noted reports of new arms deals and a planned “flood” of sanctions on Iran, and they speculated he could take more aggressive military action.

“Mr. Trump, who has already undermined the international order and isolated the United States, now appears determined to use his final 10 weeks in office to pursue a scorched-earth foreign policy that will only make Mr. Biden’s job harder and leave the world even less stable on Jan. 20,” they wrote.

White House communications director Alyssa Farah pushed back on Malley and Gordon’s allegations that Trump was causing chaos, insisting he had strengthened prospects for peace in the Middle East.

“Under @realDonaldTrump’s leadership, the US & our allies decimated the ISIS caliphate. And Trump’s National Defense Strategy rightly focuses on countering China, rather than getting bogged down in endless conflicts in the Middle East,” she tweeted.

While President Trump continues to contest the 2020 election results, the Taliban appears to have already moved on. The group has publicly called on Biden to adhere to the agreement to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 2021.

“The Islamic Emirate would like to stress to the new American president-elect and future administration that implementation of the agreement is the most reasonable and effective tool for ending the conflict between both our countries,” the militant group said in a statement Tuesday.

Afghan government officials have urged Biden to reevaluate the peace process and place new pressure on the Taliban to meet its commitments. Biden said during the Democratic primaries that he would support pulling out most troops if doing so did not create a security risk.

Navigating the Afghanistan peace deal and managing what remains of the U.S. presence in the Middle East would be among the many military challenges facing a Biden administration. Even sticking to the timeline of withdrawing next spring could prove problematic if tensions between the Afghan government and the Taliban remain high.

“It’s a very politically difficult task to undertake because the definition of victory in Afghanistan remains ambiguous,” said Rodger Baker, senior vice president of strategic analysis at geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, a RANE company.

Experts say it is unclear if the U.S. could do anything to prevent a power vacuum from forming in the wake of a withdrawal, no matter how well planned. However, there is little reason to think that would change if troops stay for several more years.

“Keeping the forces there is in no way changing the reality on the ground, which is that we are not accomplishing the mission... We cannot make the Afghan government be anything different from what it is,” Adams said.

Still, speeding up the process unnecessarily to meet an artificial Christmas deadline could create another roadblock for tentative peace talks between the Afghan leadership and the Taliban. The threat of a continued U.S. presence in the region is one of the factors keeping the Taliban at the negotiating table.

“A slow, managed drawdown alongside or after negotiations are complete would be the best course, but even then, it will be tough for any president to go to zero troops given the dangers—whether real or imagined—of a terrorist resurgence,” Walldorf said.

Under these circumstances, Baker suggested there could be some political upside for Biden if Trump rushed through a withdrawal before he took office. It might not be an ideal solution, but the last three presidents have spent years searching for a clean resolution to the conflict and failing.

“My gut is that, if Trump in the final days of his presidency were to precipitously withdraw the rest of U.S. forces... a lot of people, including Democrats, are going to breathe a sigh of relief because they don’t know how to get out of Afghanistan either,” he said.